Movie Review ~ The Shape of Water


The Facts
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Synopsis: In a 1960s research facility, a mute janitor forms a relationship with an aquatic creature.

Stars: Sally Hawkins, Michael Shannon, Richard Jenkins, Doug Jones, Michael Stuhlbarg, Octavia Spencer

Director: Guillermo del Toro

Rated: R

Running Length: 125 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (9/10)

Review: First impressions are everything and the underwater opening shot of The Shape of Water got in good with me.  Over the credits, director Guillermo del Toro navigates us through hallways submerged in water as if hazily coming out of a dream before revealing that’s exactly what’s happening.  It’s a beautifully artsy way to introduce his adult fairy tale and it sets a tone that’s well-maintained throughout.  This is an artisan that knows his way around strong visuals but sometimes struggles with a narrative to match those impressive sights.  Over-indulging with Pacific Rim but bouncing back nicely with the criminally underrated Crimson Peak, del Toro reaches new heights (or depths?) with The Shape of Water.

Living above a movie theater and working nights as a janitor at a government laboratory in 1960s Baltimore, Elisa (Sally Hawkins, Blue Jasmine) has been mute since an injury as an infant left her unable to speak.  It’s a quiet life ruled by routine, whether it be her standard breakfast or her “personal” time she makes sure to take every day.  Her job is mundane but she has a friendly co-worker in Zelda (Octavia Spencer, Fruitvale Station) and Giles, a kindly closeted neighbor to keep her company.

The lives of all three are altered significantly by the arrival of a secret experiment into the research facility.  A living, breathing sea-monster has been captured in South America and has been brought to the test center to be studied, observed, dissected.  Under the watchful eye of the evil Colonel Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon, Midnight Special) and the scholarly interest of Dr. Robert Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg, Trumbo), the creature is kept chained in a tank and routinely tortured by his captor.

While cleaning the laboratory one night, Elisa connects with the creature and sees kindness in him where others see fear.  Over the next days they find a common language that leads to deeper understanding and maybe…love.  Set during the height of the Cold War with the threat of Russian spies everywhere, Strickland takes no chances in protecting his find at all costs, so when Elisa hatches an escape plan for the creature and brings Zelda and Giles (Richard Jenkins, White House Down) along as her co-conspirators, they face an obsessive hunter out for blood.

As is typical of a del Toro picture, the period details are precise down to the backsplash tiles in Elisa’s apartment.  An ardent fan of monster movies from Universal Studios, del Toro has intelligently put together this picture as a loving homage to his youth while relaying a very present message of acceptance at the same time.  The script, co-written by del Toro and Vanessa Taylor (Hope Springs), is filled with main characters that would be considered outsiders, or “other”, yet their position in the plot isn’t there to exploit what makes them different.  There’s even a sweet scene where fantasy and reality collide when Elisa imagines herself in a big budget Hollywood musical, featuring the creature as her dance partner.  It’s these bits of whimsy that parallel nicely with the darker turns the film takes in its final half hour.

Hawkins has next to no dialogue but conveys so much in her expressive face.  It’s difficult stuff to invite an audience so far inward but Hawkins has the goods to captivate us throughout.  While Spencer has played (and will continue to play) this type of whip-smart tough cookie roles before, there’s an added layer of angst in her personal life that ups the ante for her.  Jenkins continues to be a value add to any project he’s involved with, his gay illustrator longs for any kind of connection and his personal and professional rejections are heartbreaking to watch.  If all goes to plan, Stuhlbarg will be in three movies nominated for Best Picture this year (Call Me by Your Name and The Post being the others) and as a man harboring dangerous secrets he’s resplendent as always.  No one plays a nasty villain quite like Michael Shannon and while I’d long for a chance to see him play a Giles-like role someday, he’s a nice nemesis for Hawkins and company.

There’s going to be those that find the romantic relationship that develops between Elisa and the creature (marvelously played by Doug Jones, Hocus Pocus) to be troubling.  On the way out of the screening I heard one audience member remark they weren’t aware the movie was about bestiality and honestly, to reduce the movie to that is missing the mark entirely, especially when you take into account the open-for-further discussion ending.  I found the relationships between all of the characters incredibly moving and authentic, especially the dandy scene with Elisa pleading with Giles to help her save the creature.  If they know what’s happening is wrong and do nothing to help him, what makes them any better that Strickland and others who want to destroy something that is different?  It’s a lesson our country needs to hear right now and del Toro knows it.

The Silver Bullet ~ The Shape of Water

Synopsis: An other-worldly fairy tale, set against the backdrop of Cold War era America circa 1963.

Release Date:  December 8, 2017

Thoughts: This just shows you how much I’ve been paying attention.  I mean, I had no idea that The Shape of Water was even a thing much less that Guillermo del Toro (Pacific Rim) was behind the whole affair.  That being said, now that I’m aware of it I’m looking forward to it.  As usual, del Toro’s stories feel like dark fairy tales that push back at pre-conceived notions of darkness and light.  So as fans of the auteur we know it will be different and we know it will look great…but will audiences take a chance on a hard-to-pin-down flick like this?  I know I will, but del Toro’s track record has been spotty with attracting a crowd…which is too bad because he’s one of the very best filmmakers working today.  Starring Sally Hawkins (Blue Jasmine), Octavia Spencer (Fruitvale Station), Michael Shannon (Midnight Special), and Michael Stuhlbarg (Doctor Strange), The Shape of Water surfaces just in time for the holidays.

Movie Review ~ The Company You Keep

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A former Weather Underground activist goes on the run from a journalist who has discovered his identity.

Stars: Shia LaBeouf, Robert Redford, Julie Christie, Richard Jenkins, Susan Sarandon, Stephen Root, Sam Elliott, Brendan Gleeson, Terrence Howard, Anna Kendrick, Jackie Evancho, Stanley Tucci, Brit Marling, Nick Nolte

Director: Robert Redford

Rated: R

Running Length: 121 minutes

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review: The first of two movies that Robert Redford starred in in 2013 was this curious little project that Redford also sat comfortably in the director seat for.  Though the film came and went with very little fanfare, I’d expect some collateral buzz to be drummed up for it when Redford is (hopefully) nominated for an Oscar for his career-high work in All is Lost.

Redford has seen more action as a director lately and he seems to be enjoying this part of his career which appears to be having a slow moving but surefooted renaissance.  It’s known that Redford is picky about the material he’ll take on as an actor and perhaps more so with his directing work which makes The Company You Keep all the more puzzling because it’s one of those half-there efforts that no one seems particularly invested in.

Scanning the cast list I get the notion that Redford peppered his film with actors he’s long wanted to work with and vice versa.  Why else would some big name stars drop in for what amounts to glorified cameos in an independent picture?  I kept thinking that actors like Richard Jenkins (White House Down, Jack Reacher) were just stopping by for lunch in Sundance when Redford asked if they could film a quick scene before dessert was served.

When Redford’s activist past is exposed by an opportunistic journalist (Shia LaBeouf, Lawless), he goes on the run and works his way through people from his younger days he’s long forgotten and who would just as soon forget about him.  Even with their brief screen time Oscar winners Susan Sarandon (Jeff, Who Lives at Home, Robot & Frank) and Julie Christie are effective as two fellow radicals that re-enter Redford’s present in two very different ways.  And keep your eyes out for Brit Marling (The East), Stanley Tucci (Jack the Giant Slayer), Nick Nolte (Cape Fear, I Love Trouble), and Terrence Howard (Prisoners) in the aforementioned brief supporting turns.

An overlong film, The Company You Keep winds up feeling like the guest that won’t take the hint to go thanks to several false endings.  While it’s diligently made like most Redford films are, there’s an evident emptiness at the core that doesn’t give the film any lasting weight past the final credits — that’s a shame when you consider the might of the stars Redford has assembled.

I should add it also doesn’t help that Redford has cast LaBeouf who continues to be one of the more overrated yet increasingly disliked actors in Hollywood.  Known for badmouthing his costars and film projects, LaBeouf had an overdue denouement at the end of 2013 when it came out that one of his short films was plagiarized from preexisting work.  It’s hard to take him seriously as a flawed film persona because LaBeouf’s personal persona is so much worse.

That casting aside, there’s admittedly a level of sophisticated maturity that should prove interesting to the more astute viewer.  I absolutely suggest you see Redford’s solemn work in All is Lost before taking this one on (he’ll also appear in Captain America: The Winter Soldier) but if you’re a Redford devotee or a fan of the political dramas/thrillers of the late 70’s you may find something worth your time here.

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Movie Review ~ White House Down

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The Facts:

Synopsis: While on a tour of the White House with his young daughter, a Capitol policeman springs into action to save his child and protect the president from a heavily armed group of paramilitary invaders.

Stars: Channing Tatum, Jamie Foxx, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Jason Clarke, Richard Jenkins, James Woods

Director: Roland Emmerich

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 131 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: Hollywood’s quirky concept of rival studios producing dueling pictures with the same subject matter has been around for quite some time. There’s the battle of the lava flick with 1997’s Volcano and Dante’s Peak, dueling doomsday comet movies with 1998’s Armageddon and Deep Impact, and most recently two different takes on a fairy princess legend with 2012’s Mirror, Mirror and Snow White and The Huntsman.

One would think that being the first to the theater would signify a clear winner but it’s almost always the case that the second film edges out the competition.  That general rule is true again in 2013 which has provided your local cinema with two movies centered around the hostile takeover of 1600 Penn Avenue…better known as The White House.

March’s Olympus Has Fallen was a gratuitously violent and shabbily made film, feeling like it was shot in the same two hallways and offices with the furniture simply re-organized to suggest a new location.  It also boasted a forgettable villain and supporting performances that ranged from serviceable to hysterically awful (I’m looking at you Melissa Leo).  It felt like an extended version of the television series 24 without any of the surprise that that show seemed to have in spades.

So I was modestly hopeful that White House Down would be a better film…but as more television spots were released and a final too-long trailer was plopped before every summer movie thus far, I started wondering if I’d even make an effort to see the film at all.  It didn’t help that there’s something about the subject matter that doesn’t sit quite right with me – maybe it’s because I find The White House to be a true symbol of the United States of America and I’ve not taken any pleasure in seeing it destroyed in films over the years.

Well, I wound up seeing White House Down opening weekend and my first thought was that the movie was better than it had any right to be.    What you have here is a true blue crowd pleaser that wisely avoids the missteps of Olympus Has Fallen by keeping things moving at such a rapid pace that you barely have time to catch your breath or let your brain do any dissecting of the fairly ludicrous material.

Though I like a well thought out action flick as much as the next person, there’s something satisfying in just letting a movie like this wash over you without having to worry too much about dots being connected or lessons being learned.  This is a hard muscled thrill ride of a film and it’s thanks to the unusually focused efforts of director Roland Emmerich  (2012, Independence Day, Universal Soldier) and star Channing Tatum (Side Effects, The Vow, Magic Mike, Haywire, 21 Jump Street) that the movie comes off as pleasing as it does.

With a script from James Vanderbilt (The Amazing Spider-Man) that is really just a re-working of the original Die Hard, White House Down takes a good 40 minutes of its 131 minute length to set-up the characters and plot points that will be used throughout the film.  Foreshadowing is a lost art and while most movies have such obvious moments that will be referenced later in the film, there are a few sequences near the end of White House Down that you don’t even realize were set-up in a halfway decent way an hour or more earlier.  I respect films that can divert you like that without going for a cheap ploy and White House Down, while derivative, never feels overtly sly in its approach.

The synopsis above is pretty perfect in setting up the goings-on of the film and I’m going to refrain from saying any more, lest I give away some of the turns the movie takes on its journey.  There’s no super secret twist awaiting audiences but I did find it admirable Vanderbilt and Emmerich didn’t take the trail most traveled in the midst of all the gunfire and explosions.

A movie of this ilk could easily have recessed into R-rated territory and it’s notable that the PG-13 rating leaves the movie relatively bloodless but doesn’t totally cut itself off at the knees either.  People do die but it’s not nearly as excruciating to watch as the deaths in Olympus Has Fallen or even Air Force One, Harrison Ford’s 1997 president in peril film.

Try as I might, I can’t continue to deny that Channing Tatum isn’t coming into his own as a perfectly fine actor and proven action star.  Though the script lightly sketches his war veteran turned security detail muscle man, Tatum convincingly makes the character flesh and bone and not just because he’s put in charge of saving the president (Jamie Foxx, Django Unchained) but his estranged 11 year old daughter (Joey King, Oz the Great and Powerful).

Foxx is someone I can either take or leave but his President James Sawyer is a nice role for the Oscar winning actor.  There’s not a lot of room for Foxx to do anything but what’s asked of him and his Obama-lite take on the president is nothing to roll your eyes at.  This is a president that doesn’t suddenly learn how to use a gun and take on all forms of bad ass-ery…he evolves as the situation changes around him.  There’s some nice chemistry between Foxx and Tatum, something that helps the film along on more than one occasion.

Another actor that I sometimes have mixed feelings about is the lone female star, Maggie Gyllenhaal (The Dark Knight, Won’t Back Down), and she wound up being one of the main reasons I liked the film so much.  As a confident Secret Service agent that isn’t butch-ed up or written as a doormat, Gyllenhaal is commanding and a solid presence in the war room that becomes the nerve center in helping Tatum and Foxx make it out of the attack alive.

Also turning in fine work as a villainous mercenary is Jason Clarke (Zero Dark Thirty, The Great Gatsby, Lawless), Speaker of the House Richard Jenkins (Jack Reacher), and James Woods as the head of Secret Service detail assigned to protect the president.    Everyone else is merely filler comprised of character actors that probably bring their own military uniforms to the set with them.

Even with several well staged action sequences that take Tatum and Foxx on a tour of the White House grounds, the movie does start to feel the weight of its mission about 90 minutes in.  It’s yet another case of people making it out of danger but turning around and going back in to save someone the audience knows they shouldn’t.  The perfunctory ending is rushed…almost as if the last day of shooting arrived and the final ten pages were crammed into one.

For my money, the battle of the Presidential Palace has been won by White House Down thanks to some skilled work by players operating with a hefty budget and A-List talent.  It’s easy to see why the film could be written off quickly by audiences that didn’t care for Olympus Has Fallen but I’d suggest you give this one a go if you’re in the mood for something that goes down relatively easy with a nicely chiseled punch.

The Silver Bullet ~ White House Down

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Synopsis: While on a tour of the White House with his young daughter, a Capitol policeman springs into action to save his child and protect the president from a heavily armed group of paramilitary invaders.

Release Date:  June 28, 2013

Thoughts: Hot on the heels of February’s Olympus Has Fallen is White House Down, another action-thriller involving the hostile take-over of the residence at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington D.C.  June’s White House Down is directed by Roland Emmerich who started off with the campy and enjoyable Universal Solider/Stargate one-two punch and has gradually gone the Michael Bay route of heading up pictures that were full of sound of fury and signifying nothing.  The presence of in-demand star Channing Tatum (Magic Mike, Side Effects, The Vow) can’t hurt the chances of this taking down the competition at the box office in its first weekend – but let’s see if the film has any substance to go along with the explosions.